Voyaging communications report: Cormorant

We are frequently asked by new voyagers about how we keep in touch with family and friends, i.e., communications in general. Our advice depends on what type of cruising is anticipated: inland waters and coastal cruising in North America and Europe versus offshore voyaging worldwide and coastal cruising in remote parts of the world. We started cruising full-time in 1997, so we have seen lots of changes in technology and have cruised both near and far from developed areas. Since we started cruising, we have had ham radio and marine single sideband transceivers aboard that provide voice communications, and with a special modem we have access to e-mail via the AirMail and SailMail systems.

Enhancements to the e-mail protocols have increased throughput by orders of magnitude. We are currently operating with Pactor III, and might consider upgrading to Pactor IV. We purchased an unlocked USB modem in New Zealand, and by simply purchasing a new prepaid SIM card when we arrive in a new country, we can maintain Web access aboard through the cell phone system. We also have an unlocked cell phone that allows us to change prepaid SIM cards on arrival so we have a local phone — no roaming charges!

Coastal and inland cruising in North America and Europe requires only a marine VHF transceiver ($250 and up) and a cell phone. A cell phone booster and external antenna ($150 to $250) will greatly extend the range. For Internet access, an external Wi-Fi booster antenna will often let you connect to unlocked Wi-Fi networks on shore for free. If the Wi-Fi router is in a cafe, for the cost of a cup of coffee you get the passcode and can connect from your anchored boat whenever you want. If Wi-Fi is not available, an unlocked USB modem and local SIM card to use with your laptop or notebook computer will allow Web access ($50 and up for the modem with variable costs for data). Access to the Internet allows the use of Skype for voice (and video) at nearly no cost. Prices are constantly revised downwards and prepaid or no-contract arrangements make this option increasingly attractive.

Remote connection
Offshore voyaging worldwide and coastal cruising in remote parts of the world will require the addition of a communication device that does not rely on cell phone or Wi-Fi service. This is essential for access to weather, emergency communications, and e-mail. In the past, the choice was always a ham radio and/or marine single sideband transceiver and modem (radio $1,000 and up, modem $1,200, tuner $450, antenna and grounding system $300 and up). The trend for voyagers now outfitting boats is toward satellite phones ($1,000 up), as the handsets and connection charges are becoming more reasonable, and they are portable and can be used away from your boat. More and more of the cruisers who have started in the last few years have only a satellite phone. Search the Internet for Iridium, Inmarsat, and IsatPhone. We will keep our radio, however, because it does what we need for emergencies, weather and e-mail (plus it’s paid for). It also allows us to chat with friends on a daily radio schedule when making crossings or to participate in cruisers’ nets for sharing information on a region when at anchor.

The fully-equipped vessels are now choosing to have an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceiver aboard. The AIS operates over the marine VHF frequencies and provides constant location and identification information of vessels and provides the same information about your vessel to AIS-equipped vessels. Prices are now down in the $500 to $800 range.

Try a blog
The latest communications scheme is to create a blog. One reason we started ours is that so many people ask to get updates from us, yet we never know how many people on that long list to send each e-mail to. Now everyone knows the blog is there and we hope they will look at it and occasionally leave a note. What close friends and family say they like the most is having the photos along with the stories. There are many no-cost blogs available, and they are increasingly easy to keep up to date. Have a look at ours at www.harryjane.weebly.com/blog.html. Communications is a rapidly evolving technology, so do a thorough Internet search before parting with your hard-earned cash.
Harry Hungate and his wife, Jane Lothrop, have been out cruising on their Corbin 39 cutter, Cormorant, since 1997. They plan to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Spain to the Caribbean in late 2011.

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By Ocean Navigator